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Brunel's Urban Scholars celebrate black beauty

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Students on the Urban Scholars Programme showcasing their portraits at their Permissible Beauty exhibition

A group of students on Brunel’s Urban Scholars Programme have taken part in a project to explore permissible beauty, showing young black girls that black is beautiful and encouraging them to celebrate their hair and the skin that they’re in.

The Urban Scholars Programme at Brunel University London is a four-year intervention programme to enrich the learning experiences of secondary school pupils from inner London schools in areas of high social deprivation.

The widening participation programme aims to see more underrepresented groups in Higher Education and addresses inequalities and the wastage of talent among inner-city teenagers.

There are approximately 200 students enrolled in the Urban Scholars Programme from 30 different schools around London. Students start the programme in Year 9, and 50 new students are recruited each year.

The programme works closely with each student’s school, and students are selected on the basis of their academic talent or their potential to achieve highly.

While on the programme, students, known as scholars, visit Brunel one Saturday a month and attend sessions on core curriculum subjects, as well as drama to improve their presentation skills.


                                          The Urban Scholars Programme

Dr Antoine Rogers, the programme director, leads the sessions, and scholars also hear from guest speakers who motivate them to raise their aspirations and encourage them to achieve highly.

As part of last year’s programme, eight Year 10 black scholars from Notre Dame Roman Catholic Girls' School took part in an additional project that explored concepts of beauty and black representation in art heritage and cultural spaces.

“Nearly all the students from Notre Dame are from Black Caribbean and Black African backgrounds, and they spoke a lot about their perception of being viewed as less than beautiful by the media,” said Dr Rogers.

“The scholars said that they were not seeing themselves represented in heritage and cultural spaces, and I decided to run the Permissible Beauty project as a direct response to this.”

The project ran from February to July, and the girls attended monthly workshops at their school and visited arts and heritage institutions, such as The V&A Africa Fashion exhibition, the Black Cultural Archives, the 198 Gallery and the Advocacy Academy.

“While the primary aim of most widening access and participation programmes is increased attainment in science, technology, engineering and maths – STEM-related subjects – the Urban Scholars Programme has long championed the inclusion of creativity and critical thinking as crucial components of the scholars’ educational journey because we know these also contribute to greater confidence and academic success,” said Dr Rogers.

“During the workshops, scholars gained knowledge about art heritage and cultural sector careers and demonstrated critical thinking.”

Having learned about the role of photography in shaping art heritage, culture and activism, the scholars took part in a photo shoot during their final workshop.

As well as a group photograph, the scholars also had individual portraits that celebrated their hair, a feature of black beauty that they felt was not well represented in art heritage and cultural institutions.

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                                          Group portrait featuring some of the scholars

Last month, the photographs were shown at a special exhibition at Brixton's 198 Gallery, which the scholars attended with their parents to celebrate their beauty.

“The scholars reported greater confidence from participating in the workshops and an increased positive self-image and affirmation of their black hair,” said Dr Rogers.

“As a result of the photo shoot, scholars felt seen and valued and expressed tremendous gratitude for the group portrait hanging in the reception of their school.”

The Urban Scholars Programme launched in 2002 and is evidently making a difference and impacting young people.

On entry to the Urban Scholars Programme, typically only 20% of students are achieving target grades in English and maths, but on leaving the programme many receive university places and study STEM-related subjects.

“Having the monthly sessions at Brunel provides an environment that promotes learning and empowers scholars to believe that they can succeed and achieve,” said Dr Rogers.

For more information about the Urban Scholars Programme, please visit

Reported by:

Nadine Palmer, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 267090